A 2000 Gallup poll revealed that only 25 percent of Americans considered themselves either very or somewhat superstitious [source: Moore]. Despite this relatively low number, many people may find themselves participating in superstitious behaviors — actions that appear to be unconnected to the planned or desired results. Even those who consider themselves to be completely ruled by rationality may be surprised to find out just how many common superstitions they comply with on a regular basis — not because of any magical thinking, but simply because these actions or traditions make sense.
Think you can avoid the influence of superstition? Check out these 10 tales, which are deeply rooted in common sense, no matter what your opinion of their more mystical associations.
10: Avoid Ladders
One old wives' tale warns that you should never walk under a ladder. Some believe that this action simply brings bad luck, while others feel it will negatively influence your love life [source: Murrell]. Falling off a ladder is said to bring misfortune because it will cause you to go broke — financially, that is.
The roots of ladder-based superstitions may be due to the triangular shape that the ladder forms when placed up against a wall, reminiscent of the Holy Trinity. Passing through this Trinity is considered disrespectful to God, or even a tribute of sorts to the devil and other evil spirits. Another explanation relies on the fact that hanging victims used to be forced to climb a ladder to reach the noose, giving the ladder an unlucky air [source: Webster].
While either of these explanations may be valid depending on who you ask, do you really need a reason beyond the obvious danger associated with hanging around under a ladder? You could easily be struck by a falling tool — or person — which is sure to bring some fairly swift misfortune, no magical thinking required.
9: Shoes on the Table
Superstition states that placing new shoes on the table can negatively impact future prosperity, while leaving any shoes on the table is likely to lead to a quarrel, or just plain bad luck [source: Murrell]. Traditionally, this legend may be tied to the mining industry; when miners passed away, their relatives would bring their shoes into the home and place them onto the table [source: Tanna].
Though fewer people are involved in dangerous mining jobs today, the shoes-on-the-table superstition still lingers — and makes perfect sense if you think about it. Do you really want people putting their shoes — new or used — on the same surface where you eat? If your family members stuck their shoes on the table, wouldn't you want to argue with them about it, or throw a heaping dose of bad luck their way? This one may date back many years, but it's as valid today as it ever was, though possibly for different reasons.
8: Three to a Match
Sharing a match to light multiple cigarettes makes perfect sense, but when you're a soldier in the battlefield, it can quickly get you killed. The superstition that three to a match will leave one soldier dead dates back to the Crimean War [source: Webster]. Striking a match would alert enemy snipers to your presence, which wouldn't do them much good if you put the match out right away. Leaving it lit for a second soldier to use gave the sniper a chance to aim. By the time the third person used the match, the sniper would be ready to fire, and with so much time to prepare his shot, it wouldn't have taken much luck to hit his target. Sure, there's no reason three friends can't light up using the same match at home, but when it comes to the battlefield, this superstition is still spot-on.
7: No Bananas
If you ever step foot on a fishing boat, you'd better not have a banana in your lunchbox. No, really. As ridiculous as it sounds, the idea that bananas bring bad luck at sea actually makes perfect sense. First, banana peels are really slippery. The last thing you want to have to look out for as you navigate a slippery deck riddled with fish guts is a hidden peel leftover from someone's lunch. In addition, banana peels release methane — a toxic gas — as they ferment [source: Nathoa et al.]. This might not matter much when only one banana is involved, but if you're carrying a larger shipment, the air below deck could quickly turn deadly.
6: Food Fables
According to some common food superstitions, it's bad luck to leave a plate of unfinished food sitting out overnight [source: Webster]. Legend has it that you'll invite the devil in by doing so, but in reality, you're much more likely to invite mice, roaches and other unwanted pests. In other food fable news, it's supposedly a bad omen to drop food on yourself accidentally while you eat. Ya think? Even if it doesn't end up bringing you any serious bad luck, you've still wasted food and left yourself with an unpleasant mess to clean up, or maybe an ugly stain on your clothes, the carpet or your furniture.
More Spot-on Superstitions
5: Umbrella Lore
Who hasn't heard that it's unlucky to open an umbrella in the house? Legend dictates that opening your umbrella indoors will cause bad luck to rain down on you, while placing an open umbrella over your head indoors will lead to your death within a year [source: Murrell]. If you don't believe in superstition, the truth is probably not quite that drastic, but opening your umbrella in the house is still a bad idea. Not only is there a good chance that you'll knock something over or break some precious family heirloom, but you could also end up poking someone with one of the umbrella's metal points — bringing on even more bad luck.
4: Pregnancy and Water
Superstition warns that pregnant women should steer clear of water. Some stories claim that hanging around large bodies of water could cause a pregnant woman to miscarry [source: Deam]. No magical thinking required here — hanging around or swimming in deep water really isn't a great idea when you've got a swollen belly with which to contend.
Other pregnancy superstitions caution women that they should steer clear of baths during pregnancy. While this one isn't quite accurate, it does have some validity. Long baths may increase the risk of infection, so baths should be kept short. Baths hotter than 98 degrees Fahrenheit (36.67 degrees Celsius) during the first trimester also pose some risk to the fetus and should be avoided [source: Phillips]. Beyond these two rules, there's no reason to avoid baths during pregnancy, though large bodies of water should probably wait until after you deliver.
3: Bedtime Stories
Given how much of your life you spend in bed, it's no surprise that there are plenty of superstitions out there related to the bed, and some of these tales are actually spot-on. Legend has it that placing your bed under a heavy ceiling beam can bring bad luck. Sure, how about if that bad luck came in the form of a heavy beam falling on your head? It's also bad luck for the rays of the moon to shine across your bed. Again, this makes sense, as too much light can keep you from getting a good night's sleep. Finally, it's also considered bad luck to sit at the bedside of a sick person [source: Webster]. Perhaps because such close proximity could cause you to catch the illness yourself?
Superstitious folk believe that passing others on the stairs brings bad luck, citing biblical passages where angels passed one another in the opposite direction while traveling on a ladder [source: Webster]. This may be as good a reason as any to avoid passing on stairs, but if you don't consider yourself superstitious, consider this: Maybe passing on the stairs brings bad luck simply because you're attempting to pass someone in close quarters, and one of you could trip or fall as a result. Better just wait until the other person exits the staircase before making your move.
Speaking of stairs, another superstition claims that it's bad luck to trip when going down the stairs, though it seems like it would be bad luck to trip in either direction.
1: Ax to Grind
Superstition has it that the ax is an outdoor tool, and bringing this dangerous weapon inside the home, even for a moment, will bring misfortune or death [source: Murrell]. This one is spot-on; in the same way that it's a bad idea to open an umbrella in the house or put your shoes on the table, no good can come of bringing a deadly tool with a razor-sharp blade into the house. There are few uses for an ax indoors, so bringing it inside is simply engaging in unnecessary risk that someone or something will be injured or damaged. Play it safe and keep axes and other tools out in the shed where they belong.
What superstitions existed in the past about solar eclipses? Do any persist today? Learn about eclipse superstitions in this HowStuffWorks article.
Author's Note: 10 Superstitions That Are Actually Spot-on
I consider myself to be about as anti-superstition as possible — so much so that I find myself trying to stifle a sneeze so people won't bombard me with "bless yous." Despite my skepticism, I found this article to be a delight. It was truly mind-opening to research superstitions that actually made sense in modern times. You still won't catch me knocking on wood or running away from black cats, but I'll probably try to follow many of the superstitions presented here. I really don't have any reason to bring an ax inside or place my bed directly under a heavy beam anyway.
- Deam, Jenny. "7 Pregnancy Superstitions." Parents. 2015. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.parents.com/pregnancy/my-life/pregnancy-superstitions/#page=6
- Mikkelson, Barbara. "Banana Ban." Snopes. July 20, 2013. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.snopes.com/luck/superstition/bananas.asp
- Moore, David W. "One in Four Americans Superstitious." Gallup. Oct. 13, 2000. (Jan. 7, 2015) http://www.gallup.com/poll/2440/one-four-americans-superstitious.aspx
- Murrell, Deborah. "Superstitions: 1,013 of the Wackiest Myths, Fables and Old Wives' Tales." Amber Books. 2008.
- Nathoa, Chananchida et al. "Production of Hydrogen and Methane rom Banana Peel by Two Phase Anaerobic Fermentation." Energy Procedia. 2014. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1876610214008224
- Phillips, Amy. "Can Pregnant Women Take Baths?" University of Arkansas Medical Sciences." 2015. (Jan. 6, 2015) http://www.uamshealth.com/?id=11942&sid=1
- Tanna, Ruchika. "Don't Put Your Shoes on the Table!" USC Digital Folklore Archives. April 2012. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://folklore.usc.edu/?tag=shoes
- Webster, Richard. "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions." Llewellyn Publications." 2008.